Monday, January 17, 2011

A Moment in Tucson

For a moment – a fleeting one perhaps but a moment nonetheless – a nation took a time out from the business as usual vitriol and collectively mourned its wounded and slain. Wednesday night in Tucson the President spoke not just to the state of Arizona, but to all of America. His words were measured, to be sure, but for a country locked in a bitter struggle between right and left, they were the perfect tonic at the perfect time. Whether you are a fan of Barack Obama or not, give him this: when we needed him most, he did not disappoint. Like Bush after 9/11, Clinton after Oklahoma City, and Reagan after the Challenger explosion, Obama brought a nation together and allowed it to both grieve and heal. On this night, there were no Republicans, no Democrats, just Americans.

And like the adult in the room we always knew he was, Obama grabbed the mantle that circumstance had presented him and spoke not to our fears and divisiveness but to our hopes and similarities. He could’ve turned the moment into yet another opportunity to rub more salt into a gaping wound; instead, by seeking the high ground, he exposed the hearts of those for whom conciliatory reflection are foreign, and helped lead the way out of the darkness of despair. Compare the words of Obama with those of Sarah Palin, who obviously still has a lot to learn about timing.

Obama: “You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations - to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we've seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health systems. Much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.

“But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized - at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do - it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.

“Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, ‘when I looked for light, then came darkness.’ Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.

“For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man's mind.

“So yes, we must examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future.

“But what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.”

And now Palin: “Vigorous and spirited public debates during elections are among our most cherished traditions. And after the election, we shake hands and get back to work, and often both sides find common ground back in D.C. and elsewhere. If you don’t like a person’s vision for the country, you’re free to debate that vision. If you don’t like their ideas, you’re free to propose better ideas. But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.

“There are those who claim political rhetoric is to blame for the despicable act of this deranged, apparently apolitical criminal. And they claim political debate has somehow gotten more heated just recently. But when was it less heated? Back in those ‘calm days’ when political figures literally settled their differences with dueling pistols? In an ideal world all discourse would be civil and all disagreements cordial. But our Founding Fathers knew they weren’t designing a system for perfect men and women. If men and women were angels, there would be no need for government. Our Founders’ genius was to design a system that helped settle the inevitable conflicts caused by our imperfect passions in civil ways. So, we must condemn violence if our Republic is to endure.

“As I said while campaigning for others last March in Arizona during a very heated primary race, ‘We know violence isn’t the answer. When we ‘take up our arms’, we’re talking about our vote.’ Yes, our debates are full of passion, but we settle our political differences respectfully at the ballot box — as we did just two months ago, and as our Republic enables us to do again in the next election, and the next. That’s who we are as Americans and how we were meant to be. Public discourse and debate isn’t a sign of crisis, but of our enduring strength. It is part of why America is exceptional.

“No one should be deterred from speaking up and speaking out in peaceful dissent, and we certainly must not be deterred by those who embrace evil and call it good. And we will not be stopped from celebrating the greatness of our country and our foundational freedoms by those who mock its greatness by being intolerant of differing opinion and seeking to muzzle dissent with shrill cries of imagined insults.”

Get the distinction?  It's as obvious as the nose on your face.  One was a leader intent on seeking answers and bringing healing to a wounded nation; the other was a charlatan desperately trying to justify her actions and completely devoid of any genuine sympathy or compassion.

Putting aside for the moment Palin’s obvious inappropriate use of a term that to any Jew is considered extremely offensive, even if you could somehow give the former half-term governor of Alaska the benefit of the doubt that she has unfairly become the poster woman for the Tucson shooting – and I for one do not – know this much: while her words and actions may not have been directly responsible for what happened, it’s clear that at least indirectly she must bare some responsibility for encouraging and contributing to the vitriol she extols as “an enduring strength.”

David Frum, a conservative who has been critical of the far Right, had the best take on Palin’s speech, calling it “petty, narcissistic, and ignorant. When you apply for a job, you should dress for the job you want,” he noted, “She dressed for the job she has.” But it isn’t merely that Frum thinks Palin did not come off as presidential– she came off even less presidential than she has in the past. “She’s mad– that showed. She’s madder than she is sad. She’s very wounded by what has been done to her,” he explained, a sentiment he found inappropriate in comparison to the gravity of the event she was discussing.

And it wasn’t only Palin who showed her true colors at the most inopportune moment. Sharon Angle – she of the Second Amendment remedy contingent – just couldn’t resist putting in her nickel’s worth of self pity. “Expanding the context of the attack to blame and to infringe upon the people's constitutional liberties is both dangerous and ignorant,” the Tea Party darling said. Lacking even a semblance of empathy for the true victims, Angle, Palin and her ilk have made this all about them and in doing so have confirmed our worst impressions about them.

The sad thing about all of this is that it took such a tragedy to expose these people and bring them out into the light of day for every one to look at.  The far-Right in this country has always fermented an atmosphere of fear and loathing to advance its agenda, while simultaneously peddling itself as the purveyor and protector of human rights and liberties. For them, this is about a crazed gunman who, all on his own, took the lives of six innocent people. Their fingerprints were never on the murder weapon. To even hint that there is a causation here represents an assault on the very Constitution they claim to cherish most. Their response over the last week has been predictable and typical.

But there is a real danger here that goes far deeper than any crazed lunatic’s maniacal blood lust, or fanatical political sect’s warped interpretation of Constitutional law. The real threat lies in how the mainstream media handles this going forward. For while it might be technically wrong to lay all of this at the feet of the social pariahs of the Right who foster the very drivel that we take for granted as somehow representing true conservative thought in this country, it would be equally wrong, in the name of trying to be (you’ll pardon the pun) fair and balanced, to dismiss it out of hand and pretend that it has no bearing whatsoever.

We have seen, all too often, the mainstream media literally cower during moments of national tragedies. Its conduct in the aftermath of 9/11 was inexcusable and aided and abetted the Bush Administration in its pursuit of an illegal war, that almost a decade later the nation still has not extricated itself from. Its unwitting complicity cost the American taxpayer hundreds of billions of dollars and resulted in countless lives lost. The fear here is that once more, in an attempt to prove it does not possess a liberal bias, the mainstream media will abdicate its responsibilities and go along with whatever ruffles the fewest feathers. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people; hate-filled speech never incites violence; and, oh yes, let’s incarcerate a few more deranged souls in insane asylums. And while we’re at it, let’s all sing Cumbayá while Republicans and Democrats join hands and sit side by side at the State of the Union.

Rather than seize the moment and ask profound questions about our social discourse and the ease with which anyone can purchase a gun, we are making this about mental disorders and fake victims. Is the Second Amendment absolute? Or can reasonable people agree that the government can and should take steps to insure that certain weapons that have only one use – that of killing large numbers of people in one clip – be removed from the list of available weapons that can be purchased by gun owners? How many bullets does it take to kill Bambi for heaven’s sake? Why are we still pussyfooting around this issue? How many more innocent people have to be shot before we finally get it that assault weapons shouldn’t be allowed on the streets or sold anywhere in the country?

But, sadly, that probably won’t be the topic of discussion over the next few weeks. Instead what we’ll talk about is Sarah Palin’s self-aggrandizement, Jared Loughner’s personal demons, and, as always, we’ll never get to the heart of the matter. Professional journalists will dance around the real issues and, after a brief moment of “grieving” and “healing,” it will be business as usual. Partisan politics will once more rule our national discourse, talk radio will continue to apply itching powder to the unstable and insecure, and the next time tragedy strikes, the vast majority of us will shake our heads and ponder what happened and why didn’t anybody do something about it?

History is replete with tragedies that represent opportunities for true discovery that can lead to transformative solutions. All too often, however, we take the easy way out and push the pile of dust from one end of the rug to the other. But, sooner or later, we must deal with the dust or face the consequences of our slovenly ways. Right now, right here, opportunity knocks. It awaits our response.

1 comment:

steve said...

Thanks, Pete. We are such a violent and greedy nation, it takes a tragedy of this magnitude to get us to pause even momentarily, to reflect on our sicknesses. But I am not hopeful that it will lead to much lasting change, since the issues are entangled with so much money and power. The Bible calls such a nation foolish, destined for the ash-pile of history.